Tom Horn (1980)

Dir: William Wiard  - Cast: Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Slim Pickens, Elisha Cook, Geoffrey Lewis

Steven McQueen's penultimate movie deals with the downfall of the legendary lawman, scout, detective, hired gunman and convicted assassin Tom Horn (1860 – 1903). As an army scout Horn assisted in the capture of Geronimo, he served with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and worked as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, but when the film starts, he has become an anachronism, a lonely drifter in the quickly disappearing world, and the events inevitably lead to a foregone conclusion: on November 23, 1903, one day before his 43rd birthday, Tom Horn is hanged for the shooting of a 14-year old boy. 

McQueen, whose idea the film was, considered several big names as director - among them Don Siegel and Elliot Silverstein - but for various reasons they never made it past pre-production; the job eventually went to James Guercio (Electra Glide in Blue), but he was replaced - after only three days - by William Wiard, a man who had mainly worked for television. It is widely believed that McQueen directed large parts of the movie himself. The script - based on Horn's own writings - was rewritten on several occasions, and the original budget of $10 million was cut to a mere $3 million. Understandably it did not become the great movie McQueen must have had in mind. But it's by no means the complete failure some have made of it. 

The film opens with a scene in which Horn is provoked by another historic character, prize fighter and future world champion Jim Corbett. No match for the pugilist, he ends up in a stable, bruised and unconscious, but some people who witnessed the incident have recognized the famous gunman. One of them is John Cole, who tells Tom that he and his fellow ranchers have problems with cattle rustling. Horn proves much too good at his line of work, discomforting his superiors with a series of brutal 'executions'. Some of them have political aspirations, and are afraid that the public opinion will turn against Horn and those who hired him. When a young boy is shot, Tom Horn is accused of murder and eventually convicted to the gallows. 

In reality it is still debated whether Tom Horn committed the crime or not. Most historians think he didn't, and of those who think he did, the majority believes he fired the fatal shot without realizing  he was shooting at a 14-year old (1). In the movie it is strongly suggested that there was a set-up and in accordance with the elegiac westerns that had been popular in the decade before, Tom Horn is presented as a man who is too proud to leave the country when Coble, the man who originally hired him (and still a good friend), tells him he might be in trouble. When he's finally arrested, he refuses to answer to simple questions because he thinks the judge has already made up his mind. He then tries to break out of jail when it's far too late, and is immediately recaptured.

Steve McQueen had studied Horn's biography and followed his trail, from the very first beginnings on a ranch in Missouri; he had also spent many hours with writer Louis L'Amour, who was in possession of many of Tom Horn's letters. But when shooting started, McQueen was already terminally ill. He had trouble breathing and his behavior became increasingly unpredictable; soon the movie was as doomed as the man whose story was being told. 

Tom Horn became a critical and commercial failure, much to the grief of its star. It cannot be denied that it's a flawed movie; it often feels choppy and some of the flashbacks are so abrupt that they work downright confusing. However, recent comments have been far more positive; in retrospect McQueen's frail health contributes to the movie's feeling of doom, and Philip French calls it a  thoughtful and impressive movie in a 2004 revision of his original study of the western genre (2). The action scenes are brief and quick, but very brutal, and John Alonzo's cinematography is breathtaking. And if McQueen (understandably) seems a little absent-minded in some scenes, most supporting actors turn in very fine performances. Richard Farnsworth is a standout as his close friend John Coble, who believed in his innocence until the bitter end, and Linda Evans is endearing as the schoolteacher, a woman from Hawaï who falls for the Old Westerner.


* Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Internet archives
* Tom Horn Website


* (1) Tom Horn was acquitted in a mock trial in 1993, see: Tom Horn Wikipedia page (under: Willie Nickell murder, Horn's arrest and trial); for a comment on the original case and the mock trial see also the Tom Horn website
* (2) Philip French, Westerns Revisited, p. 212-213


  1. Nicely done, Simon. I've always found this such an interesting film and was impressed by the lengths taken by McQueen in his research.
    I appreciate you taking the time to write such an excellent, an accurate review.

  2. Also, great that you mention Richard Farnsworth's performance. I recently watched him "Comes a Horseman," where he played "Dodger." The film is inferior to Tom Horn, but Farnsworth is even better in the earlier role for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor. One of the few guys that makes the move from stuntman to actor and does well at it.

  3. He's also great in THE GREY FOX, a western virtually without action and still compelling. Very fine actor.

  4. I thought it was a damn good film and it always seemed he used his wits to escape from the jail awaiting his hanging and then on his way up to the gallows after his capture he apologized to the sheriff who still had no hard feelings and thought they were hanging a patsy , I think they did too,,,


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